Richard Oakes: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Richard Oakes on Alcatraz, Nov. 17, 1970. (AP Photo/Photo by Sal Veder)

Native American activist Richard Oakes is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. May 22nd, 2017, would be his 75th birthday. Today, Oakes is best known for creating one of the first Native American studies departments in the nation, and leading an occupation of Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s.

Oakes, affectionally dubbed “Chief” his fellow Natives, was born in New York on May 22nd, 1942, and died on September 20, 1972 at age 30. Learn more about Oakes, his politically charged life, and the controversy surrounding his premature death here.


1. Before Becoming An Activist, Oakes Was A Steel Worker

Oakes was born Akwesasne, New York, where he followed in the footsteps of his ancestors by fishing and planting crops of corn, beans, and squash. Unfortunately, this existence was destroyed by the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which, according to Indiana County News, “brought heavy industry to our pastoral area resulting in contamination of our lands, waters, and bodies.”

Faced with finding a new profession, Oakes evolved with the times and became a high steel worker, which required him to do a great deal of traveling. It was during one of these trips that he wed an Italian woman in Rhode Island, and the two would have a child, Bryan, in 1968.


2. He Attended San Francisco State University

Not long after the birth of his son, Oakes divorced his wife, changed professions yet again, and moved out West. He subsequently enrolled in San Francisco State University, where he attended classes during the day and worked as a bartender in the nearby Mission District at night. While in attendance at SFSU, however, Oakes grew discontent with the courses that were being offered, and joined forces with an Anthropology professor to expand the curriculum to include Native American studies.

He developed the outline for what would go on to become one of the first Native American studies programs in the nation, which encouraged other American Indians to enroll in San Francisco State University. This increasing awareness among the community, coupled with Oakes’ increasing interest in activism and equality, eventually led to the famed Alcatraz protest in 1969.


3. He Led the Occupation of Alcatraz

In an excerpt from Indiana County News, journalist Doug George-Kanentiion spoke to the burgeoning political climate that Oakes found himself in:

“He came to see his heritage as a source of pride rather something to be hidden. He was encouraged to find a cause, take a stand, become what he was meant to be– a leader of the people. In the fall of 1969, all the right regional factors came into play: a large Bay area Native student population, a vibrant media, a history of political activism throughout the region.”

Oakes, along with a group of SFSU students (and 80 UCLA students), occupied Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. The goal was to obtain ownership of the island and establish an independent community where Natives could live, cook, and establish their own museums and cultural centers. Sadly, the death of Oakes’ teenage step-daughter Yvonne in 1970, greatly affected him, and led to his voluntary departure soon after. The government removed the remaining protestors later that year. It was the longest occupation of a federal facility by Natives in history. Watch Oakes deliver the Alcatraz Proclamation above.

Despite being deemed a “failure” initially, Oakes did manage to affect U.S. policy and the treatment of Native Americans moving forward. The Termination of Indian Tribes policy that was established in the 1940s was terminated in favor of the Indian Self-Determination policy, which allowed the government to provide grants to Native tribes.

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4. He Continued to Lead Activist Missions

After Alcatraz, Oakes continued to participate in activist organizations. He joined up with the Pit River Tribe in an attempt to reclaim three million acres of property from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. In a sentiment that proved similar to his goal on Alcatraz, Oakes planned to create a university on the property, as a means of educating Native Americans and providing them with job opportunities.

This attempt, while successful, led to police brutality that included bombardment with tear gas, billy clubs, and brief jail time. Oakes was released soon after, but was hospitalized for a time in 1971 when he suffered a brutal beating by two men in a bar in San Francisco. He was reportedly in a coma for a month, but made a full recovery.


5. He Was Shot And Killed In 1972

Oakes, like so many revolutionary leaders of the time, died at a tragically young age. He was shot and killed by a man named Michael Morgan, who was a camp manager at YMCA. Morgan had a bad reputation when it came to his treatment of Native American children, and Oakes reportedly confronted him over this, causing Morgan to draw a handgun and shoot him point blank.

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Morgan was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but the charges were dropped six months later on the grounds that Oakes was being aggressive and Morgan was acting in self-defense. Oakes died on September 20, 1972 in Sonoma, California. While commemorating the late Oakes, George-Kanentiion wrote:

“Richard was attractive to the media. He spoke well, had a powerful presence… He wanted a Native Peace Corps, a national Native university, a confederacy of Native nations able to defend and expand upon their status as free, independent nations. Some of his dreams have yet to pass but his standing as the first great Native hero of modern times has not dimmed.”

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